Saturday, June 26, 2004


A recent conversation with Pele Odur Okumu revealed some amazing stories of survival and an insight into the activities of the liberation movements in the provincial capital of Torit in Southern Sudan where he grew up.

Pele said he was held at gun-point by rebel soldiers of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), tortured, starved, and beaten unconscious at one stage, for refusing to join the liberation movement.

There was mindless violence everywhere: from the little village of Parajok where Pele was born, to the capital of Torit. No one was safe. Doors were blown open with grenades as the rebel soldiers and forces loyal to the government rifled through houses.

Pele later fled across the border and sought sanctuary in Uganda. His junior brother was probably not so lucky: he was murdered in cold blood for questioning the rationale of the movement and for refusing to join the SPLA in 1991. It was a vile and senseless murder. Murder most foul!

This unfortunate incident was the most traumatic experience of Pele’s young life. Yet he received no psychological support or counseling even after arrival in Australia. Meanwhile, the emotional wounds are still fresh, so to speak, and the pain appears to be unbearable. Yet, Pele soldiers on.

Africa is still in his mind, always. “There were enemies on all sides”, he says, “we were running away from the brutality of the government militia”, on the one hand; and the “criminal activities” of the renegade “elements of the SPLA” on the other; they were fighting for control of the civilian population, and the resources. Consequently, there was chaos and mayhem in Southern Sudan in the 1990s.

Pele’s family was split apart as a result of the conflict. He made the dangerous journey to Uganda. His parents, along with his brothers and sisters fled to Kenya.

Pele’s arrival in Australia in 1999 was a mixture of sadness and joy - joy because, he believed, he had finally found “Peace and security in Australia”, a new home. And sadness because his wife and three children were left behind in Uganda. A strong sense of loss overwhelmed him.

“Separation from my family is sad and painful”, Pele confesses “I feel quite guilty about it”. In fact, he grieved the separation from his family much the same way he did for the loss of his brother.

The psychological effects of separation and loss has made it almost impossible for Pele to cope with life as a refugee. Nor is there any immediate relief in sight. To make matters worse, there is also the almighty financial problem to worry about because he has continued to support his family in Africa from his meager earnings in Australia.

He has tried, quite unsuccessfully it seems, to send for the children he left behind and to bring the entire family to South Australia through the family re-union program. But, “there is no luck so far”, he says, “ I’m extremely disappointed”.

Meanwhile, what is Pele’s plan for the future? “What future?” he replies, “I have no future here while my family is still languishing in the refugee camps in Africa”. Then again, “my plan is to re-unite the family”.

I came out of the first meeting with Pele with a great deal of empathy; obviously believing that maybe there is something I can do to help him soften the pain and anguish of transition. Yet, I suddenly realized that I haven’t got all the answers; but I will do my best.

Thus, in the final analysis, I believe, maybe there is someone out there who could provide the answers, who could wipe the tears from his eyes, and put a big smile back on Pele’s gentle face.

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